Wooden Sculpture (CC image via EpSos.de)

Why is science important?

Some people think science is all about wild-haired, bespectacled geeks in lab coats, holding beakers and marvelling at their latest fantastic breakthroughs. Then there are the people who believe it to be some sort of church, where immutable truths are held in sacred reverence. Many consider it to be just a type of opinion, prone to change its mind with the same regularity as teenage fashion. In the worst case, it is condemned as an enterprise of pure evil, determined to foist dangerous chemicals, foods and drugs on a compliant public. All of these are lazy, small minded caricatures of what science is.

Put simply, science is about trial and error. Scientists test ideas against reality; dumping the failed ideas and retaining the successful ideas for further scrutiny. Ideas that survive multiple, repeated testing gain greater validity. Over time, the best ideas become part of the consensus of knowledge that helps us understand the world and Universe we live in. While all this knowledge is provisional, and subject to change with further evidence and testing, many of the best ideas are doggedly persistent, retaining their power and validity after many decades, and even centuries, of close examination. Gravitation and Evolution by Natural Selection are two of the more notable examples.

This process of trial and error is familiar to us all. Computer programmers, debugging thousands of lines of code, understand it only too well. Businesses test competitive strategies, rejecting ones that don’t add to the bottom line. Plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters rely on the fruits of hundreds of years of reality testing, every time they build a house. We eat mushrooms, salad leaves and shellfish, safe in the knowledge that someone, some time in the past, tried them, liked them, didn’t die of poisoning, and told others what they had just eaten. Science is all this, and more. Over the years, it has become very sophisticated in how it can tease out the best approaches from a vast array of flawed ideas.

Science is important because it tells us how things work. Often, it can explain why they work. So, when it comes to explaining something like why vaccines are today used against measles, the trained eye can explain it not only from longitudinal studies on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, but also though an understanding of the mechanisms of the human immune system and the measles virus itself. Even if there is a lot more to discover, as in the cases of autism and cancer, science can provide a sense of what is known so far and what is yet to be discovered.

Science is furthermore important because it also tell us what doesn’t work and the reason why this might be so. So when crystal healers tout their garnets and quartzes as cures for depression, or when homeopaths claim that their sugar pills have medicinal properties, we can reliably challenge their assertions. Pseudo-scientific (“false scientific”) claims like this fly in the face of physics, biology and everything we know about physiology and mental health.

One wonderful thing about science is the many surprising insights that have been made about the nature of the world around us. Discoveries such as DNA, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and relativity – to name but a few – have revolutionised our understanding of the world while driving massive improvements in technology and the world economy. We need to keep in mind that without science, such discoveries would never have been made.

Science can also provide the most useful hints toward future discoveries, cures and treatments. The knowledge already built up leads to interesting pathways deserving of further research, and from this, real breakthroughs may arise. Without such a starting point, we are unlikely to make much progress in fields such as cancer control, neurological disorders, climate change and the many other problems of our times. To propose and promote solutions in such areas while remaining ignorant of existing knowledge about the problem is foolish in the extreme.

There is an integrity to science. Despite many different political systems around the world, there is no “Islamic science”, or “Eastern science” – it’s just science. The same methods are taught in science classes everywhere there is a commitment to good education. And despite many attempts by politicians and charlatans to interfere with the scientific process for their own ends, it stands firm, even if this means loss of funding and favour. This is particularly the case in the environmental debates of the present time.

For these and other reasons, science is worth promoting and defending. Many groups seem intent to promote anti-scientific agendas, or, more usually, cherry picking the bits of science they like, while rejecting outright the bits that don’t conform to their ideologies. It’s difficult to be blasé when confronted with such opposition. A lessening of the value of science, in our classrooms and public spaces, is ultimately a rejection of what we have learned as a species. It debases a process of inquiry that has served us so well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.